Return to the Office?

Although many people have spent much of 2020 working from home, news of a vaccine has prompted a great deal of discussion about the future of the office. Much of the media, including business focused channels such as LinkedIn, have been full of philosophers predicting the demise of traditional office space. But just how realistic is it to abandon the office and change the way we live and work forever?

There is no doubt that 2020 has forced many to consider a different perspective when it comes to work. Some of the positive take-aways from the lockdown include reduced commuting, more time at home and perhaps a more flexible or relaxed atmosphere to the working day.

International commuters

For those who were used to work meaning regular international travel, it’s no surprise that the outlook, at least for the next 12-24 months, will be very different. Grounded, this group’s lives will have significantly changed in 2020 and it’s likely that some may struggle to return to a globally mobile existence, should it even be an option.

But for the vast majority whose typical day involved a short commute to an office to work with the same group of colleagues, there is certain to come a point at which normality can resume. So, what might happen when it’s crunch time?

Some big employers have made a clear commitment not to return to ‘the norm’. Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have all announced that the option to work from home will remain as a permanent fixture for employees. And producers of so-called ‘welfare packs’ (which include usual office staples such as tea, coffee, fruit and snacks, and even treats) have witnessed a huge surge in demand as they ship goodies to employees working from home. But just how sustainable and realistic is it to continue in this manner for months or even years?

Is health and wellbeing a factor?

Prior to Covid, one of the biggest focus areas for employers was health and wellbeing. Some of the main areas of investment for HR and FM teams were in ensuring offices were productive and positive places to work in and visit, providing a supportive space to think and relax and investing in office furniture to avoid long term health conditions.

Whilst working from home comes with many different benefits, few homes offer dedicated working space for a 40 hour week or room for ergonomic furniture. Instead, millions of people are working on the kitchen table, on makeshift desks and sitting for long periods on unsuitable chairs. And as for the welfare packs, isn’t there a moral and ethical argument against shipping staff chocolate, alcohol and snacks…?

Increase in mental health issues

There is also a growing story about the mental health issues for those who are struggling with working from home. Going to an office, for some, was potentially their only contact with other human beings. As a result, this long period of working from home has left them isolated and without any regular human contact. For others the office potentially offered a form of sanctuary, either from the hustle and bustle of busy family life or in less positive cases, from harm.

So, will we return to the office?

Opportunities to introduce change like the one presented by a lock down are (thankfully) few and far between, but they do provide a critical pause and time for reflection. As always, there are positives to be taken. Although few seem to have the desire to simply return to the office ‘as was’, the concern that we are about to abandon the office is probably unnecessary. Let’s not forget the many dimensions which offices provide – the framework for corporate culture, a social space for staff and a work space for teams. They are a hub, a meeting place and for many, the availability of a practical and safe workspace is far more valuable. They offer so many intangibles that simply doing away with the office is not a realistic prospect.